By Hjoe Moono
My colleague, the brilliant Brian Mulenga ( – Oh yes, very brilliant in all respects by any standard up high!) has written a post on his Facebook page where he laments whether we are serious about development or not. He recalls the good old days of the 1960s and 70s where Zambia’s industrial capabilities where perhaps second only to South Africa, and probably among the best in the world as far as Copper Mining was concerned.
These capabilities, however, are no more.
He rightly laments about the lack of Research and Development in Zambia to develop and sustain industrial and technological capabilities that are necessary for economic development. He questions, and strongly so, what we as a country, especially those in research institutions, are doing to create value through innovation.
I agree with Brian, fully, and have occasionally lamented about this. I have lamented about the lack of ‘serious’, ‘value adding’ and ‘socially enhancing’ technology development from our learning institutions. I also lament about the almost 0% budget allocation to research and development in our national budget: We are sure not to develop if this sustains.
There is also the other side, perhaps the most important side to all this: Where is the demand for this innovation? Is the demand large and deep enough to create competition for technology product development in our universities and colleges?
What is this demand?
It is entrepreneurs!
Zambia lacks serious entrepreneurs that appreciate and can use technology to create value and wealth.
Don’t get me wrong here, we have many successful tenderprenuers and they are doing well by any standard, and thus no need for any innovation, but guess what? When they win tenders, they go to China to buy goods manufactured and innovated in a competitive scientific environment.
As long as we do not have entrepreneurs that can create value from ‘base’ materials through innovation, there will be little demand for research and development and consequently, Zambia will be poor and underdeveloped.
The demand for this innovation, can, however, also come from the developers themselves. The famous Silicon Valley in the USA, the home of high tech development is clustered around the top research universities for two reasons:
1. Students that graduate create Start – Ups but want to stay as close as possible to universities for ‘knowledge’ spills overs – to benefit from any new developments in research and development as well as consult from time to time, researchers at univesities for product development ; and
2. Researchers (lecturers) at universities may decide to set up private firms with students, and since they want to have a close link with the firm, set firms near the universities for among others, reason (1) above. And should the firm be successful, many have left their jobs at university and gone on full time to running their businesses.
If you look at the case of Zambia, however, the story is different. Our top research university, YUNZA, is adjacent next to KalingaLinga Compound and Arcades Shopping mall: Every graduate wants to leave YUNZA to avoid living in KalingaLinga but run towards a life that can afford shopping and drinking at Arcades or smoking and twerking at Capones. Our researchers at University do not seem to be incentivised enough to create products of value to society beyond teaching, marking, grading and living by or having one too many at senior staff canteen after work: They have the technical skills and knowledge BUT lack the innovation, or perhaps ambition, to use that knowledge to create value.
The culture of Tenderprenuers or, soberly said, ‘Traders’ is expected when you have a small open economy whose key economic driver is driven by foreigners – Mining. Mining investors are not here to create jobs or make Zambians rich and wealthy or educate us more, no, they are here to make profits and will do so at least cost possible. If the country doesn’t produce the mining inputs cheaply at the right price and quantity, they will import. If the country doesn’t have well trained staff, the firms will hire foreign labour – it’s simple, they want to make profits and are here for business.
That said, however, there is hope. Zambians of Indian origin have had their Gujarati genes activated and are taking advantage of the country’s population, rising incomes and are moving from trading to manufacturing using local resources.
Trade Kings with the legendary Maheu shows this: From a commonly prepared local brew to a highly successful international brand in just a decade, the evolution of Super Maheu No.1 shows you that on the contrary, Zambia has the knowledge, it just lacks ‘Zambians’ with serious entrepreneurial ambition.
I mean, come on, how long had we Zambians been drinking Maheu? Chibwantu?
Then one Gujarati comes in, talks to a guy at YUNZA and boom, they identify and replicate the enzyme required for the brew and wala, Multi Million Dollar Brand is born.
My other good colleague Kakoma BraaiMaster Mutenda has been working on his local brew, the Fire Tender beer and Imbote Wine made out of honey produced locally using his knowledge of chemistry from YUNZA. So it’s the combination of the skills, knowledge and the entrepreneurial acumen that lacks in Zambians, period!
SoBrian Mulenga, perhaps we start getting high on our own brews, no?
The challenge is on all of us – private citizens and government: We need to deliberately commercially exploit solutions to our daily problems by taking advantage of the creativity and knowledge of our universities which will ultimately promote innovation and research, lead to create wealth, grow the economy, build successful businesses and improve quality of life and no one will care about Fire Tenders anymore!
That said, how is the Skills Levy introduced last year performing? These are the issues we should be raising and ensuring that government is guided on the right path.